Marek van der Jagt

"The Story of My Baldness"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 7, 2004)

"You're blind to the beauty of my words because you are already dead, they've just forgotten to bury you, but there's grass growing above your heads already, only you can't see it because you're always looking down your noses….I want to help you, I want to mow the grass above your heads, I am the divine lawnmower."

The Story of My Baldness

The main character of The Story of My Baldness, a young man coincidentally bearing the same name as the author, Marek van der Jagt, angrily throws these words at two of his professors during a rage. This indictment, however, may also represent the author's broader feelings toward the Dutch literary establishment. Marek van der Jagt, thought to be a real person when this book was first published, is, in fact, a pen name for the iconoclastic Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg. Writing under his real name, Grunberg won the Netherlands' 1994 Anton Wachter Prize for a Debut Novel for Blue Mondays, a novel which sold over 200,000 copies in Europe (not available in English). Immensely popular, he published several more novels and became a newspaper columnist before creating a storm of controversy.

Inventing "Marek van der Jagt," an author who was supposedly a Viennese philosopher, Grunberg created a much publicized rivalry between van der Jagt and himself in the Dutch press. When "Van der Jagt" attacked Grunberg and several other Dutch authors for writing frivolous novels, Grunberg rose to respond. When "van der Jagt's first novel"--this novel--was published, life became more complicated for Grunberg, since The Story of My Baldness unexpectedly won the 2000 prize for Best First Novel, a prize Grunberg had already won for Blue Mondays. Only when Viennese reporters, unable to find "van der Jagt," succeeded in tracking down the friend of Grunberg who had been forwarding all of "van der Jagt's" mail to him, was the true identity of "van der Jagt" discovered and the prize withdrawn.

The irreverence with which Grunberg approaches life infuses every aspect of this hilarious and very ribald coming-of-age story. Marek van der Jagt, is a fourteen-year-old philosophy student when he decides that he will devote his life to finding l'amour fou, or mad, passionate love, which he does not really understand. The son of a Viennese life insurance salesman and a woman for whom unrestrained l'amour fou is the primary occupation in life, Marek has little guidance about the facts of life, either from his parents or his two older brothers. All he knows is that l'amour fou is important, and he wants it.

His first attempt to kiss the maid is a failure. "She was extremely tall and gangly and had two warts on her right knee, but when it came to Great Causes, one could not let anything as banal as attraction get in the way." She gives him a blow to the back of the head. He begins to wear a hat with a feather to attract attention, but he cannot wear it in school. When he is still unfulfilled at fifteen, he decides that l'amour fou is impossible with an Austrian woman, so "I crisscrossed Vienna in search of foreigners." He finally finds two, Milena and Andrea, a pair of tourists who seem more than willing to accommodate him.

Marek's farcical reactions, his completely inappropriate comments to these women, his clumsy approaches, and his undisguised fascination with the publicly performed sexual techniques of his brother, who has been enlisted to amuse Andrea, make Marek's first attempt at seduction a classic literary scene. A philosopher to the core, Marek wants to draw meaningful conclusions about what he is seeing, but decides "perhaps such conclusions are best left to doctors and nurses, medical people who bring you your test results with an earnest look…" At a crucial moment, Marek's dinner of Peking duck, "whose praises I'd just been singing, suddenly rose eight inches."

His own first experience with Milena may be the least romantic (and most amusing) seduction ever recorded--a life-changing experience, though not in the way Marek has hoped: Milena's comments about his endowments cause him to seriously question whether he is really a dwarf--one who has just grown taller than usual. The remainder of the novel deals with Marek's attempts to deal with his feelings of physical inferiority.

Throughout his farcical search for l'amour fou, Marek makes grand pronouncements and "profound" comments about life and love, often relating his experiences to those of philosophers and creating silly epigrams ("If you drink enough vodka, you understand everything."). When he is making love with Milena, he thinks of Camus and asks her "What is culture?" On other, similar occasions, he ponders the French Surrealists, fantasizes about being "the Rimbaud of Vienna," and dreams of being a success as a poet with a volume to be entitled The Dwarf and Other Poems, its popularity spreading widely "like Hepatitis C." Marek's comic observations about human foibles are spot-on. His family and friends, seen through his own eyes, are wacky, larger than life (especially the academics), and ludicrous in their lack of understanding. His own naïve, Don Quixote-like search for l'amour fou is both touching and laugh-out-loud funny.

Young, irreverent, and gifted with the ability to see real life as the joke it sometimes is, Marek van der Jagt/Arnon Grunberg is certain to gain American fans with this novel. His earthy prose, beautifully observed, attests to his belief that "you should not live as though a masterpiece is on its way." Life may or may not have some cosmic meaning for him and Marek, but "the absence of meaning is every bit as hard to comprehend as infinity." Ultimately, he says here, "Life goes on for a while and then stops." Enjoy it while you can.

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Writing as Marek van der Jagt:

Writing as Arnon Grunberg:

 

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About the Author:

Arnon GrunbergArnon Grunberg was born in Amsterdam in 1971 and was kicked out of high school at age seventeen. After failing to get into acting school, Grunberg started his own publishing company at the age of twenty-one. Written on a dare when he was only twenty-two years old, his first novel Blue Mondays became a bestseller in Europe, won the Anton Wachter-prize, and his now in production for a movie and has been translated into eleven languages. His second novel, Silent Extras was recently optioned for a major motions picture by the British production company Geoff Reeve Films, and his third novel Phantom Pain won the AKO Prize, the highest literary honor in the Netherlands.

Writing under the pseudonym of Marek van de Jagt, his novel The Story of My Baldness, also won the Anton Wachter prize for best first novel, but the prize was revoked when it was realized that he had in fact already won the prize.

Grunberg was raised in Amsterdam and currently lives in New York City where he has dabbled in waiting tables and real estate. He writes a weekly column for a Dutch newspaper about life in America, and contributes widely to magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times. He has recently been commissioned to write a contemporary version of Erasmus' In Praise of Folly.

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